Have you ever found your kid crying in a heap on the floor because they couldn’t figure out how to do some school thing? Did you know what to do?
Have you ever had a student look at you from the back row with a look of exhaustion on their face and tell you that they just don’t get it? How did you handle it?
It isn’t a fun situation from any angle.
Feeling incompetent is a terrible experience for kids, and not knowing how to coach kids through it is frustrating as all get out. Research shows persistent feelings of incompetence can lead to poor mental health and disengagement, but it’s something that many kids feel on the daily.
Fortunately, there are strategies we can use to coach kids through these feelings in “neuro-supportive” ways (I think I made that word up, don’t google it).
To illustrate these methods, I’m going to share a story about my 10-year-old son then we’ll break down the play-by-play to understand the strategies.
As I was sitting down to write about the importance of competence in motivation, my fourth-grade son came in, asking me to help him with his math. I made room for him and his Chromebook at my desk, and he sidled up.
About 10 seconds later, he was in the throes of despair, saying things like, “I’m the worst at math. I’m so stupid. Why are all my friends good at math and I’m the stupid one so far behind?” His frustration grew and grew until he was doing things like pinching himself and even hitting his head with his hand.
My heart broke for him in this moment of struggle, but I also felt triggered by his behavior and had to fight tooth and nail to maintain my composure. I felt my chest tighten and my jaw clench.
I wasn’t exactly a “math kid” growing up, so his feelings were bringing up some still sensitive insecurities for me personally. Also, I was raised in a home where feelings weren’t “encouraged,” so my natural inclination was to send him to his room until he could “control himself” and to tell him to toughen up and do the work.
My brain was serving me judgmental thoughts that sounded like, “he wouldn’t be struggling if he had been working harder” and “he just doesn’t care enough.”
Instead of acting on these instincts, I took some deep breaths and allowed myself to feel these feelings. I acknowledged my negative reactions as understandable but not helpful.
I paused before responding to him and asked myself some questions.
What do I see in this moment? What kind of person is my son to me right now? Do I see a kid who is lazy or unintelligent? Or can I see a little boy who just wants to be “good” and “smart?”
As I intentionally chose to see the latter, I felt my heart soften toward him and empathy come into me. I could see his behaviors and reactions as understandable and even expected. Knowing these feelings had triggered his sympathetic nervous system (crying, pinching, hitting), and taking his higher-order thinking offline, I knew it would be impossible for him to do any math from this brain state.
So instead of pushing the feelings aside and trying to move on to the math, I expressed empathy in a soft and loving tone and told him how I had similar feelings about spelling when I was in fourth grade, so I could totally relate to his despair.
I sat with him as he ugly cried. I rubbed his back and told him I would stay with him. As his feelings increased in intensity, my triggered feelings started to return. It was taking every ounce of self-control I had to stay in this moment.
My brain was thinking things like, “this is unreasonable,” and “he shouldn’t be feeling SO sad about this.” I also really wanted to point out these struggles were not random but the logical and expected result of the amount of work he had put into his curriculum.
However, I remembered when our nervous systems are activated, the brain doesn’t run on logic or cause and effect, and it is difficult to reflect honestly.
Maybe I would be able to bring that up later but now was not the right time.
I held on to the feeling of empathy I had found before and remembered when kids are letting out big feelings, they are letting out ALL their pent-up feelings of frustration and sadness, not just the ones tied to their recent upset.
After several minutes of high emotion, he asked me for a hug.
Knowing it can take several minutes for the neurochemistry in our brains to return to normal after our sympathetic nervous system is activated, I suggested we take a little break before diving into the math.
He regained his composure, and we reviewed his math progress. I knew I needed to find the root of his original feelings of incompetence if we were going to solve this problem.
As we looked at his math mastery data, we noticed while he had gone through his lessons, he had demonstrated a low level of accuracy throughout his course and likely had some learning gaps he was now trying to build on. I was so grateful at this moment we had chosen a data-driven, mastery-based approach where learning gaps would be easily identified.
I suggested before moving on in his course, he would benefit from going back and reviewing the spots where he needed more practice or review. This was a big blow to him because it meant he would stop progressing forward on his goal while all his friends moved on.
I paused our data review to dig into these feelings. I helped him see he wouldn’t be able to get his nervous system to relax enough to access the thinking part of his brain to do the math until he chose different thoughts. His negative thoughts, and therefore feelings, were persistent for him and had led to his avoidance of math over the past few months.
I suggested instead of “I’m so stupid,” “I can’t do math,” or “I’m behind all of my friends,” we try a new thought that sounded something like, “This is hard for me right now and that’s ok. I’ll figure it out.”
I invited him to repeat these words several times out loud, and as he said them, I could see his body relax and his breathing return to normal. I praised him for his ability to calm down and choose his thoughts. We remembered one of our favorite quotes, “comparison is the thief of joy,” and after a little bit more protest, he accepted going back to past lessons as a good move for his future self.
He got to work.
Now that he was calmer and better able to engage, I thought I might be able to circle back to helping him see his struggle was not due to a lack of innate capability or intelligence but rather the normal and expected result of the amount of effort and focus he had put into learning math. I pointed out perhaps his confusion and lack of skill were to be expected, considering his overall lack of engagement with his math curriculum over the past few months. Unfortunately, he detected my veiled correction and read my conclusion as criticism (regardless of my intent). He got defensive.
He insisted he had been working diligently. I persisted, reminding him for the last semester, he had been using his learning time to pleasure read instead of tackle these difficult math concepts.
He sighed in frustration and gave me “the look.” I smiled back warmly and he acknowledged his avoidance might have played a small part in his frustration.
This experience is not unique to our home or family. It happens every day in homes, classrooms, and soccer fields, but it doesn’t always end so positively.
Here’s a breakdown of the strategies I was using with my son that helped steer us toward this happy ending.
I even made them rhyme for your convenience. You’re welcome!
You are going to feel a wide range of feelings as you interact with kids as they struggle through feelings of “shut down.”
Acting out of anger, frustration, or impatience is never going to help them overcome their frustration and shift into problem-solving mode. Our negative feelings will always lead us to actions that make things worse.
So if you want to be able to support kids in these moments successfully, it is imperative you process your own thoughts and feelings along the way so you can stay emotionally regulated.
Easier said than done, yes?
Don’t worry, there’s hope. The secret to keeping your cool lies in understanding where your feelings are coming from. According to a well-substantiated psychology framework known as “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,” our feelings don’t come from the actual events we experience but rather from our interpretation of the events.
Clear as mud?
Here’s an example…
In my story, I initially interpreted my son’s struggle as the result of not being a hard worker. When I saw him this way, my brain became flustered. I felt angry and tense because being a “hard worker” happens to be one of my deepest-held personal values. When I was little, hard work was pretty much the only thing my dad respected. So I learned if you wanted to be accepted, valued, and loved in our home, hard work was your ticket.
So, in reality, my visceral reaction to the situation wasn’t because my son was having a hard time in math. It was because I was interpreting these events as evidence that he wasn’t a hard worker, which, considering my upbringing, understandably triggered a lot of big feelings for me.
But when I decided to see him as a boy who just wanted to feel “good” and “smart,” I could deescalate my feelings and lean into empathy and calm. Choosing to see him differently enabled me to stay connected and not storm off in a huff or say things that would be hurtful. Win!
Take home: How you choose to see a child in their struggle determines what emotions you will feel. How you feel determines how you will respond to them. To control yourself, you have to choose how you interpret the child’s behavior in a way that fosters empathy and compassion for them, not judgment.
Brains are complicated things, but understanding a few key ideas can help you when you are coaching kids through the stress of feeling incompetent and the ensuing hopelessness that sets in.
There are two systems in our bodies that regulate our stress response.
One is called your “sympathetic nervous system” and is in charge of sending your body and brain into a state of high alter that we sometimes call “fight or flight.”
The other is your “parasympathetic nervous system” and it’s in charge of undoing the stress response caused by the sympathetic nervous system so we can calm down.
When your sympathetic nervous system is activated, tons of neurotransmitters and hormones are dumped into the brain and blood so that we can run away from or fight whatever is attacking us. Helpful when you meet a lion but not so helpful when you meet long division.
When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, we lose access to the part of our brain that is in charge of problem-solving and emotional regulation. What’s more - this part of the brain is still developing until well into our 20s! So even when you have full access to it, things are pretty dicey in the PreK-12th grade range.
When we are coaching kids through struggle, it is normal for us to point to “reasons” for the struggle, to explain or lecture about why things are hard for that child. We think explaining the logical cause and effect of their situation to them is going to suddenly help them see what’s happening and turn themselves around, but here’s the thing…
When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, our brains don’t do logic. They don’t do cause and effect. They can’t reflect on the past and make changes for the future. They just do big feelings. Loud, irrational, messy feelings.
In these moments, you have to abandon all forms of “teaching” (lecturing, consequencing, reasoning, etc.) and know your only focus should be helping the child get through this time. This involves getting their parasympathetic nervous systems to kick in. You can do this by expressing empathy, staying connected, helping them breathe, and letting them cry.
Fun fact: many of the neurotransmitters that are dumped into our brains during sympathetic nervous system activation actually show up in our tears! This is why you feel so much better after you have a good cry!
Take home: When a child is in this “dysregulated” state, trying to solve any problems or use any kind of reason with them is akin to trying to paint a boat in the middle of a storm. Does the boat need to be painted? Sure. But when you’ve got 20-foot waves on either side of you, high winds, and lightning strikes, you don’t worry about the paint. You just have to ride the storm out.
This last tip has less to do with coaching and more to do with the systems we are using to help kids gain skills and knowledge. Feelings of perceived incompetence will always breed frustration - so a big part of setting kids up for success is thinking carefully about ensuring they are operating within their zone of proximal development and not pressuring them to build on top of “learning gaps.”
Luckily for my family, my son attends a Prenda microschool where all of his coursework is “mastery-based,” meaning he gets to work at a level and pace that is right for him. No one is pressuring him to move on before he is ready or to keep up with an arbitrary schedule. We look at the data, we set a goal, and we support his progress. End of story.
You’ll notice in my story his feelings of comparison were only coming from his own observations. Not I nor his guide were sending any messages that he was “less than” in any way for hitting a rough patch in math. We could see what he was missing and press pause on moving forward without any negative results. 100% of his learning minutes at school were dedicated to addressing his needs at his level.
In a normal 4th-grade classroom, he would be “exposed” to the content during whole group instruction and then remediated if he didn’t understand by being put into a low-achieving, differentiated math group. Then the class would take the unit test, he would get a C, and move on regardless of his obvious learning gaps, furthering his sense of incompetence. After repeating this cycle for several units, his teacher would likely recommend that he stay after school for extra help or that I get him a math tutor, further “othering” him from his peers and reinforcing the fixed mindset belief that he is just “bad” at math. Not such a happy ending.
Take home: Choose learning programs and curricula that focus on mastery. Take a flexible approach to curriculum schedules and comparison-based judgments that make kids feel “behind.” These judgments only serve to send them into nervous system alarm and invite them into the incompetency cycle.
If we want to help students build confidence and attack learning with hope and persistence, we need to make sure we are bringing our A-game when it comes to keeping our cool. We need to carefully choose what we will see in our children and students and how we interpret events. We also need to be mindful of the brain states of our students and not expect things from them that are outside of developmental norms.
And lastly, we need to provide each student with a personalized learning experience that is flexible and responsive to their needs. If we do these three things, we’ll be setting our kids and students up for success.
They will persist. They will progress.
Here’s my 10-year-old demonstrating some serious persistence!